Freshman Lawmaker Brian Ohler Heads to the State Capitol
Republican state representative to focus on state and local issues
By Ruth Melville
On cold sunny morning in February, Brian Ohler, state representative for the 64th District, sat down at the Berkshire Country Store to talk with Norfolk Now about his first weeks in office.
Ohler describes his first month as “a whirlwind experience.” Since being sworn into office on January 1, he has been assigned to three committees, Appropriations, Public Safety and Human Services. He is particularly pleased to be on the Appropriations Committee: “As a freshman, you want to learn as much as you can as quickly as you can.”
It will come as no surprise to any Connecticut resident that the major issue facing the state is the state budget crunch. Ohler says he is a fiscal conservative who wants to rein in spending and control taxes. The state has a $1.7 billion deficit that is expected to rise to $1.8 billion next year, and cuts will be needed. “Unfortunately,” he adds, “the stereotype assumes I’m just out to cut, but that’s not true of me, I’m a moderate. I believe in balance.”
According to Ohler, the state budget “targets small towns and favors big cities. A lot of our small towns are run well, but the four big cities—Hartford, Bridgeport, Waterbury and New Haven—whether through negligence or fiscal mismanagement” need help. Of the nine towns in the 64th district, Ohler says, seven of them received 50 percent cuts in funding. Proposed cuts to the Education Cost Sharing (ECS) grant would cost Norfolk around $320,000.
Ohler is also opposed to the recent state proposal to shift one-third of the teachers’ pension costs to the 169 towns in the state. Norfolk’s share, he says, would be an estimated $350,000 to $400,000
While Republican state senators Craig Miner and Kevin Witkos have been outspoken in their opposition to shifting the financial burden to small towns, according to Ohler, so too have many Democrats. Ohler wants to work with both sides of the aisle to find solutions to the state’s money problems. “I am very optimistic that everyone will come to the table to restore funds.” We want to “try to maintain ECS funds close to what they’ve been.”
Ohler arrived at the capitol with a list of local issues he wanted to raise and has already proposed 10 bills. In his district he is well known as an advocate in the fight against drug addiction (see http://www.nornow.org/2015/11/01/united-coalition-of-northwest-connecticut-combats-drug-abuse/), and he is cosponsoring a bill to have a public hearing on so-called sober homes. Clients leaving rehab often need a safe place to stay to continue their recovery. In Connecticut these homes are unlicensed and unregulated. Landlords can charge by the bed, so unscrupulous proprietors fill single-family homes with as many beds as they can—a situation that is both physically and mentally unsafe. Ohler estimates that there are 30 of these homes in Torrington, and 10 in North Canaan, but there could be more that are operating under the radar.
Another issue at the top of the representative’s list is to restore funding for tourism. According to a 2015 state report, tourism generates $14 billion of economic activity in the state, and $1 billion of that is in Litchfield County. Thus the recent closure of the Western CT Convention and Visitors Bureau seems misguided. “I want to be as big a cheerleader for the Northwest Corner as I can,” he says.
Ohler also wants to work to protect the environment, and he has proposed a bill against the indiscriminate use of pesticides. He is convinced of climate change and would like to see more solar and renewable energy in the state.
As a volunteer EMT and firefighter himself, Ohler is well aware that more volunteers are always needed. In keeping with his desire to find practical solutions for problems, he has proposed a bill to create a pilot program with Northwestern Connecticut Community College to provide reduced tuition for active volunteers. He hopes this will not only aid the emergency services in this area but also reverse the exodus of young families. “It’s a small step toward keeping people here,” he says.
On the question of improving transportation options in the Northwest Corner, Ohler is a “staunch supporter of rail transportation” and believes that the idea of restoring the Housatonic rail line is still viable. Massachusetts has already allotted $220 million to the project, and there is the possibility of getting some federal funding. “With so much support, hopefully the project will need less money from Connecticut.”
Ohler is aware that he represents a lot of different people in the Northwest Corner. While acknowledging that while there will always be party-line voting, he thinks that Connecticut is not so badly divided on some issues, and there can be cooperation in the legislature. But then again, he laughs, “I’m forever optimistic.”
Ohler smiles wryly when asked about the first 100 days of Donald Trump’s presidency. His biggest hope at present, he says, is that “the president learns to slow down, and be more inclusive” in his decision making. Trump comes from the business world, which is “fast paced and demands an immediate response,” but for a president, “one sentence can have a grave or great reaction.” But Ohler is looking forward to seeing how the President Trump can use his business experience to benefit the country.
Asked about some of the more hot-button topics, Ohler usually takes a centrist position. He is for controlled medical use of marijuana but, with his experience with the dangers of addiction, not for full legalization. On abortion, he is unequivocal that, despite his personal religious beliefs, he supports a woman’s right to choose. He hopes the Affordable Care Act will be repaired, not repealed. “It’s not perfect,” he says, but it’s established a foundation and a framework” to build from.
On the question of banning immigration from certain Muslim countries Ohler speaks passionately about his opposition to such a ban. Vetting of immigrants is needed, he says, but he feels is simply “wrong to alienate all Muslim people.” Ohler was in the army for 12 years, serving on two tours in Afghanistan and one in Afghanistan. During his time there, he came to respect the local people and worked to gain their trust. Reading about the area, he realized Muslims “could be our allies. The Middle East is a cornucopia of different religions and ethnicities. I never considered Muslims an enemy as a whole.” He concludes, “The United States is known for welcoming [newcomers] with open arms. I’m thankful to continue that message.”
During his term in office Ohler wants to maintain open lines of communication with his constituents. On January 30 he held a standing-room-only meeting in Sharon Town Hall where he participated in a lively question-and-answer session, and a coffee hour at the Goshenette is planned for the end of February. Norfolk is on tentatively on his lists for some time in late March or early April. He is also accessible on social media.
Ohler finishes our conversation by saying that he is truly appreciative grateful to have been elected a state representative from this district. “People have put remarkable trust in me. It motivates you to do the best you can. . . . I take this with me to Hartford. I have to be on my game every day.”
Photo by Bruce Frisch.